- The characters in Michelle Cuevas’s children’s books leap off the page.
- Mason Bates challenges existing notions of what belongs in the concert hall.
- Antonio Martorell has been at the forefront of Puerto Rican art for over half a century.
- The anthropological perspective of singer-songwriter Joan Shelley.
- Art & Design
Coming up, the characters in Michelle Cuevas’s children’s books leap off the page. They are as dynamic and vibrant as their creator.
Michelle Cuevas: I think I am kind of a visual storyteller, in my own head. And a lotta times, if I’m working on a scene, and I’m trying to figure out where it should go, I will close my eyes, and kind of play it like a movie.
Mason Bates has successfully brought music and instruments into the concert hall, that would’ve been unthinkable a decade ago.
Mason Bates: You can have your intellect, kind of engaging with a piece on one level, while your body’s getting hit on another. And I do think of a piece of music really needs to have a kind of visceral invasion of the listener.
Antonio Martorell is a national treasure in Puerto Rico. This painter and sculptor has been at the forefront of the island’s artistic conversations for more than half a century.
Antonio Martorell: I feel as if I’m just beginning. Because the more I do, the more I know I can do.
And we explore the anthropological perspectives of singer/songwriter, Joan Shelley.
Joan Shelley: It’s so easy to judge, and to tell a story, like, oh, this is how I see it, that’s how it was.
It’s all ahead, on Articulate.
Children’s author Michelle Cuevas is unapologetically philosophical, poetic, and playful. Her breakout book was Confessions of an Imaginary Friend.
“‘I realized I was imaginary last year,’ continued the Everything. ‘It was when I was being blamed for shaving the family cat. My best friend blamed me, which was okay by me, since I couldn’t get grounded like he could. But then, his parents got real mad, and said that it wasn’t my fault Mr. Tickles was nude, because I was imaginary, and imaginary things can’t shave cats.’
‘And how did that make you feel?’ asked Stinky Sock. ‘Bad,’ said the Everything. ‘And sad, like I’m not in control of my own fate. It’s not like I wanted to shave cats, but I’d like the option, you know?'”
Growing up in the tiny town of Lee, Massachusetts, Cuevas had plenty of space to indulge her own imagination.
Michelle Cuevas: Our neighborhood had, mostly, young boys, so I played alone a lot. I have three brothers. And so I ended up making up a lot of games, and I would…I had a family newspaper. I would make plays, and make my brothers perform them. So I was, you know, alone a lot, and writing a lot. I think that was kind of two things, and kind of doing a lot of make-believe.
A penchant for whimsy would follow Cuevas throughout her life, but it wasn’t until she was studying for her MFA that she found her niche. Her thesis became her first novel.
Cuevas: It felt like such a good fit. When I was working on it, I was happy when I was writing it. It was a work of magical realism, which I loved bringing into it. And I didn’t know if it would ever get published, but I liked doing it. And I remember that feeling, for the first time as a writer, of feeling I had chosen the exact right type of writing for me. Which was…which I don’t think everyone finds. I don’t know that that’s always the case. And then, when you hear people saying how much it feels like work, I sometimes wonder if they might want to try a different genre.
In her genre, Cuevas has now published half a dozen children’s books, two of which have been optioned by 20th Century Fox. But, as it turns out, they were already movies in her mind.
I think I am kind of a visual storyteller, in my own head. A lot of times, if I’m working on a scene, and I’m trying out where it should go, I will close my eyes and kind of play it like a movie. I’ll picture characters, and what they’re doing, and where they are, and kind of where it might go next. So it’s…sometimes, it’ll just play on its own, like a movie, and okay, I’ll just write it down.
Not only write it down, but also draw it. Just recently, two Cuevas works were published on the same day: one, a picture book, called Smoot: A Rebellious Shadow, the other, a novel that follows a young girl, as she learns The Care and Feeding of a Pet Black Hole.
Cuevas: And she realizes she can feed it things. She can feed it her problems, basically. And in the story, she starts lightly. She starts feeding it, like, “I don’t wanna do this homework, I don’t wanna take the garbage out, I don’t wanna eat my Brussel sprouts.” But, in the story, her father has passed away recently. So, she’s dealing with, or not dealing with, her grief. And I had lost my stepfather the year I wrote the book. So, I feel like it was really coming from a very true place.
Cuevas: And so, she starts throwing away her memories, the things that remind her of him, and the black hole’s getting bigger and bigger. Eventually, her dog gets eaten by the black hole, so she has to go in and save him. And her little brother follows her in—Cosmo is his name—and it becomes a space adventure. One of the lessons is, you don’t deal with your problems, they grow, they morph. So, there are space monsters and galactic showers, and it’s this kind of big Star Wars-esque space adventure. And obviously, at the other level, it’s her confronting these memories, and confronting her grief.
Though her books are, at their core, entertainment, like all great children’s literature, Cuevas is also committed to imparting wisdom. And though she never names it thus, she believes it’s best to hide philosophy in plain sight, so that the reader and the story can mature together, over time.
Cuevas: So, maybe they’re in first grade, and they haven’t learned a lot of these lessons, or experienced a lot of these things. So, they’re learning some empathy. They’re kind of imagining they’re the character. If you’re reading as an older student, or as an adult, the conversation becomes, “I remember that feeling,” you know, “I’ve experienced that.” And I think all of that’s really valuable. So, it can almost be a different book, for different people, or even a different book for the same person, at different stages in their life.
But ultimately, Michelle Cuevas doesn’t write to tickle our thinking brains. She writes to touch our hearts.
Cuevas: When you get it right, when you get that moment that you know that the reader is going to cry—and I mean that in a good way—I think you know. And, more often, the feeling I know is when I haven’t done it, and I really just don’t need to. Then, I won’t hand the book in, until I feel that.
Mason Bates has been changing classical music, by infusing orchestras with unexpected sounds. He’s brought very modern music-making techniques into a very traditional space.
Mason Bates: I think that you have to be able to engage with your listener, if you’re gonna scare the hell out of them at some point.
And Bates would know. His music, which draws heavily from his college days as a DJ, has ruffled a few traditionalists’ feathers. But, though he’s faced plenty of pushback about his bold choices, Bates is encouraged by the fact that he’s not the first composer to push against the edges.
Bates: You know, music history is full of pollination. Whether it be people, like Gershwin, or somebody like Mozart—who in some of some of the string quartets, is using these kind of gavotte melodies—it’s always been happening. And it just, it’s sort of a matter of degree, and how much you flirt with the walking of the line.
Bates: One of the things that I love about this medium, is that we have time, and we have power—you know, like, acoustic power. You can have your intellect kind of engaging with a piece on one level, while your body’s getting hit on another. I think it’s important to take full advantage of both of those elements. I do think a piece of music really needs to have a kind of visceral invasion of the listener.
Though he’s barely 40 years old, Bates is already a veteran composer. He received his first symphony commission at the age of 17, and has since been working steadily to perfect his grasp on that most sophisticated of organic instruments, the symphony orchestra—which Bates likens to a giant synthesizer, but one with a lot more keys.
Bates: And every one of those keys is a person, and you gotta really know how to work with them, because it has so much power, when you can get it revved up. But you do have to be able to fit into the acoustics. You have to fit into the logistics.
AJC: You also have to have credibility among the musicians that you’re mingling with.
Bates: Yeah. Well, you know, what I’ve found, time and again, is that…people, in orchestras, are pretty skeptical before the first rehearsal. Once they hear what the music is, they loosen up real fast. And I do think it’s one of the interesting, and, I would say, special things about our medium, is that you have both an internal, and an external audience. And then we have, obviously, the crowd that shows up. But, there’s a lot that goes on, psychologically, as you’re mentioning, on the stage, with the musicians. And usually, people—pretty quickly—are, like, going from, “Why are the speakers here?” to, “Hey, look, we can learn new tricks, too.”
And orchestras who’ve had to learn new tricks for Bates include the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and the London Symphony Orchestra. And it’s not just the big boys who can play Bates. He’s just as pleased when community, amateur, and volunteer orchestras take on his work.
Bates: It’s only going to get into the ether of the classical music canon if it happens on a regional level. You know, you have to be able to have a, kind of, grassroots of orchestras that play your music. And so, one important thing for me, is that the electronic component has to be able to work, in three rehearsals, without me there.
And he can’t always be there. He’s based in San Francisco, while also serving as artist in residence at the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C. This past summer, he spent quite a bit of time in Santa Fe, where his opera, based on the life of Steve Jobs, had its world premiere. The late Apple founder and CEO’s biography had previously had two outings on film.
Bates: It’s a topic that can withstand a couple of different angles, and I think, in many ways, opera is the best medium to handle this, this figure. And the reason I think that, is that it can be both a naturalistic and a kind of poetic medium. For somebody who changed communication—to me, communication is kind of the big picture of what he is, has done for us. Opera can really deal with that, because people can have not only different light motifs, but, like, different sound ones. It was really inspiring, I can tell you, to be writing a piece that so much had to do with a fundamental issue of the 21st century: how do you shrink all of our communication into these little devices, when we’re so complicated? That’s what he dealt with. Things spinning out of control, you know, like… He’s got a child from a different woman, he’s got cancer. These things are not one-button problems.
And it was fitting that Mason Bates should be the one to tell the Steve Jobs story, for they have a lot in common. They’re both innovators in their respective fields, who have helped define the new millennium.
Antonio Martorell: What can you get out of an umbrella? To everybody, it’s just an umbrella. You open it, to protect yourself from the sun, or the rain, or the snow. But no, umbrella is, you tear it apart, and you explore it. You learn what it is, to be an umbrella.
A consummate artist, Antonio Martorell is one of Puerto Rico’s greatest living cultural treasures. His life has been one of continuous experimentation, and new artistic materials and techniques: painting, printmaking, writing, and more.
Martorell: I feel as if I’m just beginning, because the more I do, the more I know I can do. What I learn in one medium, I apply it to the other. And when I’m doing one, I never miss the other. I wish I could be forever on stage, and when I’m working in my studio, I say, “Why, why bother doing a performance, when I’m having so much fun here?” And when I write, the same thing.
But when Martorell started out, his creativity was expressed solely through a paintbrush. Then, one day, it occurred to him that a two-dimensional object, on a gallery wall, could offer viewers only a small window into his mindset. Martorell wanted more.
Martorell: I don’t want the people just to come into the window. I want to come out of the window, and embrace them. So, I began doing installations. And I found that it really involved people in much, a cozier way. Then, I would visit my installations, and see people relating to the objects, and enjoying them, and having dialogue with the objects. But I was out of it. I was the author. So, I say, “No, I want to be a direct part of that conversation.” So, I went into performance art.
Performance art led to a more direct involvement in theater, as an actor and a director. And, from there, onto radio and television.
Martorell: It’s all geared to the same thing: communication.
And Martorell is keenly aware that communication requires as much listening as talking. In 2010, his outlook on age shifted dramatically after a brief conversation with a patron, at an exhibition of his woodcuts in Connecticut.
Martorell: This Asian lady, about the same age as I was then—which was my early 70s—told me, “I love these prints! They’re magnificent. But, why aren’t there people like us, our age? All these bodies are young, and their gestures, and everything.” I say, “Lady, thank you so much. Day after tomorrow, I’m flying back to Puerto Rico, and I’m going to do 15 more prints of people like us.” So, there came Gestuario II, which is all about super adults, like ourselves, and the gestures and the body language that comes with age.
AJC: You’ve also described super adults, and children, as the most underrepresented sectors of our society. But surely, older adults, they vote. They have agency in that way.
Martorell: Not all of us. The super adults, in extreme distress—when they’re in bed, and they lose the capacity to talk, or to move. They have no economic clout. They have no political agency. They’re just like babies. And they treat us like that. The one thing I can’t stand, you go up to the doctor, and they say, “Give me your little arm. Pull out your little tongue.” And I feel like going… I behave, because I know they do it out of—well, they say it’s caring, although it’s really condescending. But it’s both.
But in Puerto Rico, says Martorell, it’s not only the elders who are feeling patronized. Beyond, is an unincorporated US territory. And with neither statehood, nor independence, Puerto Rico’s growth has been stunted.
Martorell: I want my country to come of age. We’ve been children and teenagers for too long.
One of Martorell’s most important contributions to this coming of age was a 1966 children’s book.
Martorell: It was a joy, from beginning to end, ’til it got published. And it was accepted, as a textbook in the schools, primary schools, and then the government changed. The new party was a new progressive party, which has decided that it was some basic book, that it had to be taken out of the schools. So, they took out the books, stored them, threw them away. You know, things happen, but you overcome them.
And though, it’s now out of print, and extremely rare, at least one copy of ABC de Puerto Rico survives, safely housed in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. These days, Antonio Martorell focuses less on the starkly political, but still finds that he can never completely turn it off.
Martorell: You tend to think of politics as party politics. That’s not it. I mean, politics is about people becoming what they want to be, and that’s art.
Now 85, the keenly observant Antonio Martorell is living everything that life has shown him.
Martorell: You have to be very, very stupid to grow old and remain stupid. You learn something on the way, and an artist learns all the time.
As a child growing up in Kentucky, Joan Shelley decided that music would be her destiny.
Joan Shelley: I remember being about, like, six years old, and I’m sitting outside, under this big ash tree. And it was a beautiful spring day, and I got so sad, sitting out there by myself. And I thought, “By the time I grow up, all the songs will be written.” And I had this urgency, like a panic. And I remember, I was, like, talking to the butterflies, “I promise, if I grow up, I’m gonna write really great songs, if you keep some out there for me.” And I thought, “I remember that one day, and I wonder if that worked.”
It certainly didn’t hurt. For the past five years, Shelley has been touring steadily, at home and abroad, charming audiences with her straightforward approach to songwriting and performance. And of all her tunes, there’s one song of love and loss that is a standard crowd favorite.
Shelley: “Not Over by Half” is one that, if we don’t play it, someone will come up and say, “Why didn’t you play that song?” I’ve had interactions with people, after the show, where they say, “Hey, I lost my father, and this song really helped me through it alright.” You know, something major had happened in their life, and that song really helped them through it. And, I mean, that’s—it’s heavy to hear that, and to know that some people are coming for that song. And you don’t wanna mess it up, while trying to play, trying to still find something in there that’s… Keep it alive.
2017 brought Joan Shelley’s eponymous fifth album, produced by Wilco frontman, Jeff Tweedy.
Shelley: It was like being at a friend’s house—building the studio, experiencing that. I mean, it just felt so relaxed, and I was shocked, ’cause I went in, thinking, “What have I done? This is the producer experience. I’m gonna get squashed under that weight.”
AJC: And the opposite happened?
Shelley: And the opposite happened. In a lot of ways, he was just—he’s a great listener. And he has a great…he just has a great instinct. And all of us that were in the room were all—I picked them because they were all people I trusted to have good instinct. And you don’t have to dial somebody back, or, you know, ask more than someone can do. It just…it was a perfect mix. So, Jeff kind of led the intuitive flow.
The result is an intimate and thoughtful record, that embraces Shelley’s bluegrass grassroots. The profound influence of her college years, studying anthropology, on her outlook on life, can also be heard in every Joan Shelley song.
Shelley: I am a people watcher. And what anthropology taught me was, your being a people watcher is also not a pure thing. And so I became, “watching the watcher.” It’s so easy to judge, and to tell a story, and, like, “Oh, this is how I see it, and that’s how it was,” saying, “I got it, and I’m gonna write a song about how Mary hurt Johnny, and duh-duh-duh.” My feeling is that another place to watch the love story is within.
And though Joan Shelley may never fully grasp every possible interpretation of a situation, she’ll continue to question her own worldview, and express it in some thoughtful songs.